It was June 1989, and we had found our dream home: one and a half acres of grass and woods for the dogs to enjoy and some potentially nice areas for my own gardening pleasure. Privacy, so we could have as many dogs as we liked. Perfect! Oh, and the house was nice, too, all on one level, no stairs—we could grow old there. But it included a swimming pool, something we weren’t terribly excited about; my husband and I knew how much work and expense a pool involved, and weren’t sure it would be worth it. However, our daughter Julie, then 9, was thrilled to have a backyard pool, so we signed on the dotted line and bought ourselves a house.
Initially, our dogs were moderately interested, but while they liked lake swimming and creek wading, the pool was a little scary, and they mostly avoided it. Then, five years later, Sprint, our first Border Collie, came to us. From the start, she loved the pool. An avid retriever, she quickly learned to dive in after a ball or toy. As the years passed and our “dog nation” gradually became entirely populated by Border Collies, it developed that they were the only ones in the pool. The three of them, all girls and all crazy for the water, would drop balls into it for one another to retrieve. After a play session in the meadow, they would dash to the water and plunge in, happy to cool off.
Julie grew up and moved away, and her father and I were not keen swimmers. But we still had to keep the pool chlorinated to prevent mosquitoes, and regular cleaning was required. Then, fate intervened. When some underground piping broke, we were told it would cost thousands of dollars to make the necessary repairs. We decided to fill in the pool (even that was a surprisingly expensive operation). On a whim, I approached a local pond designer and told him my crazy idea: to convert the pool to a pond designed for the pleasure of the dogs and as a focal point of the garden. Could he do it for less than the cost of filling it in? When the answer was yes, I decided to go for it.
The conversion, which took a bit more than three months, was laboriously executed by a crew of two or three men. They broke up the apron, dumped some fill into the pool, built a wall across the middle and crafted stone into the border of the resulting two ponds; the lower pond was about 36 inches deep, while the upper pond was 30 inches. A biological filter was tucked under a bush, and two waterfalls added interest to the space while oxygenating the water. Fish and plants would keep a healthy ecosystem in balance. The first summer, we introduced a half-dozen goldfish into the upper pond. By the following summer, there were several dozen.
Planning Pays Off
Before I landscaped the area around the ponds, I watched the dogs at play. As anyone familiar with Border Collies knows, they are always on the move, circling in consistent patterns; I noted where they ran and placed slate stones to form paths along their established routes. Then I planted around the paths, fairly certain that the new bushes and perennials would be unharmed. I decided there would be no fences, since the whole point of the ponds was for the dogs’ enjoyment, and I wanted them to be beautiful but fully dog-friendly.
To maintain some level of hygiene, I taught the girls to use an undeveloped side yard as a bathroom. It would probably be more difficult if we had male dogs, and sometimes visiting boys mark on the bushes. This is not ideal, but we put up with it for the pleasure of their company.
In the beginning, I had hoped that the upper pond, which is farther away from the house and has ledges for plants, would be mostly for the plants and fish, and the lower pond for the dog play. Amazingly, this has turned out to be the case—the girls play almost exclusively around the lower pond. Some fish have come over the waterfall, but generally, the two species ignore each other. When the dogs decide to run around the whole pond and garden area, the path system comes into use; they stick to these stone runways and do not damage the various plants and bushes around the ponds. It is an ideal setup, successful beyond my wildest dreams.
Putting the Ponds to Use
The dogs’ main activity consists of running around the lower pond and throwing balls for one another. Sprint, the “alpha female,” will carry a ball to the highest spot on the rocky border and stand there, pretending to ignore the other two, who stare intently at her. After some casual mouthing of the ball, she will finally drop it in, or put it down and push it in with her paw. Then the fun begins. All three girls begin circling the pond, whining with excitement, preparing to dive in, changing their minds, running some more. Finally, one of them will take the plunge and return the ball to the steps at the corner. Sprint then grabs the ball and heads for her high spot, and the whole thing is repeated. This can go on for quite an extended period and provides much entertainment for both the dogs and anyone watching. There are endless variations on the theme, and the joy is infectious.
This sort of plan would only be amusing for certain kinds of dogs. The obsessive circling habits of many herding breeds tend to keep them close to the water, providing amusement and exercise without harm to the surrounding garden. The dogs are too busy to dig or explore the plantings. When they are tired, they throw themselves down in the shade, resting up for more water play.
Today, the ponds and their adjacent gardens are a pleasant, non-harmful addition to the backyard environment. Just as a zoo designs different habitats for each species, so I designed this habitat for my “water collies.” The pleasure we all receive from it is immeasurable, and we happily share it with visitors as well.
Photography by Jenna Stoltzfus